Monday, March 3, 2014

My Florida Trip, Part 1: Horticultural Beauty at Universal Studios Theme Park?

I'm just back from the trip to Central Florida that my husband, two children and I made last week (the last flight from Chicago was delayed by snow and we didn't get home until 4:00 am Sunday morning, which was somewhat tiring).

But the trip was lots of fun: we spent our first day in Florida at the Universal Studios "Islands of Adventure" theme park, then drove to the east coast of Florida, where we spent time on the beach and visited the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, and then we returned to Orlando for a day at Disney's Magic Kingdom. I also made my family spend a couple of hours at a botanical garden in Orlando.

After the long months of midwest winter, I was very happy to be able to see green grass and trees again, and as a gardener and garden blogger, I paid attention to (and took photos of) the plants that grow in Florida, many of which are very different from those I can grow here in Iowa.

I wasn't expecting much in the way of horticultural beauty at theme parks, but I was pleasantly surprised by Universal Studios. The level of thoughtful and creative planning of garden areas, as well as the excellence of their maintenance certainly contributed to my enjoyment of the day I spent there. And it turns out that Universal Studios has won an award for their efforts at sustainability as well.

The park is divided into different theme areas, which were marked by different horticultural styles. Let me share a few photos of outstanding areas:

Seuss Landing

The use of exaggerated topiary shapes goes well with the style of the Dr. Seuss books. This delightful creature looks right at home here.

The Truffula trees from "The Lorax" are enhanced
by clumps of ornamental grasses.

The lollipop topiaries in the background are suitably silly, as is this clever faux-topiary tree
that is actually a series of planters containing rainbow-hued annuals. Very creative.

These orange snapdragons (one of my favorite annual flowers) look stylistically right in this setting, and are blooming prolifically. Someone creative and competent is responsible for the plantings in the entire Seuss Landing area.

Harry Potter's Wizarding World

Hogwarts and Hogsmead are planted mainly with northern-looking conifers, which are appropriate to the Scottish setting of the Harry Potter books, but which do seem to be struggling a bit in the hot and humid Florida climate. 

More conifers.

A wholly artificial stage-set "shop" from Hogsmead: "Dogweed & Deathcap Exotic Plants and Flowers." The front windows of the shop, which cannot be entered, contain "plants" that can be used for spells and charms, and include a moving Mandrake Root (complete with grumpy little face) in the pot in the right window. (photo from Flickr,  sdettling)

A photo of the "Continental Divide" between the northern British conifer-filled world of Harry Potter on the left,
and the lush tropical foliage-filled Jurassic Park on the right. 

Jurassic Park

The Jurassic Park area contains what must be acres of lushly-foliaged scenes that are meant to evoke the ancient flora of prehistoric periods. Apparently, there actually were no palm trees during the Jurassic Period; ferns, ginkgoes, cycads and conifers flourished at that time (but one can hardly blame the designers of these gardens for including a few palm trees).

More Jurassic foliage. Very healthy looking plants. I can only imagine how much watering, cutting out of dead leaves and other horticultural maintenance must take place every morning before the park opens.

More exotic looking foliage, with an occasional flower.

An example of the attention to detail in Universal Studios park:
The concrete paths in Jurassic Park were impressed with palm frond
shapes while the concrete was still wet, to add a fossil-like look
to what otherwise would have been modern-looking concrete paths.

Other Areas

The Lost Continent area of the park is a vague mixture of middle-eastern Sinbad-inspired
areas and South American archaeological-looking areas.

Some xeriscape-looking plants in a gravel bed.

A tree with exotic-looking fluffy buds on it.
Someone obviously has taken time to think of unusual
plants to include in the park. Bravo for these unknown
horticultural planners, and for all the dedicated
and competent maintenance staff!

In my next post, I will share some photos of my trip to the botanical garden in Orlando that I managed to visit. Thanks for reading! -Beth


  1. What a wonderful trip! The way they brought the world of Harry Potter to life is fantastic. You will have many memories to cherish.

  2. Looks like a fun trip, Beth! It sounds great to get into warmer weather with green grass and trees and flowers about!

  3. Thanks for reading, both of you! Yes, back to Iowa snow -- but I'm encouraged by the Daylight Savings Time change on Sunday, which will mean sunlight until 7 pm! The end of winter is in sight.

  4. I happened to find this post as my family and I just came back from Universal a couple of days ago and I'm going to post something similar. I thought I'd be the only blogger writing about the theme park from a horticultural angle but you beat me to it!

    Nice article, Seuss Landing was my favourite part because of the variety of "tropical" plants as I'm from zone 5 Toronto. My kids (12 and 14 years old) thought it was a huge distraction on their way to the Hulk roller coaster, lol...

    1. I'm so glad to hear from someone else who agrees! I was just blown away by the level of horticultural creativity and achievement there -- I'm glad you think so too. I bet your post will be a lot more knowledgeable about species than mine, as you are a professional. I look forward to reading what you have to say about it.

      Did you get to any gardens while you were there? I have another post about my visit to the Harry P. Leu Gardens in Orlando: They were amazing.

      Thanks for reading! -Beth

    2. Hi Beth,

      well, I'm knowledgeable about zone 5/6 hardy perennials, shrubs, etc. but know very little about zone 9 Florida plantings. After a while, all the palms looked the same! I enjoyed the lush surroundings in Jurassic Park and wished to have spent more time there while the kids were doing the roller coaster thing.

      I agree with you about the great care and creativity that is involved with the permanent plantings (the containers elsewhere were rather ordinary). Things looked well-watered, pruned and weeded. Ironically, I don't think that 99% of the visitors cared or noticed what we (you and I) noticed about the vegetation but that would be the same for any theme park, I suppose.

      We stayed the 4 days around Universal as this trip was really for the kids. We didn't rent a car and since we paid for admission to Universal, couldn't really take side trips (although by the last day, seriously thought of hitting an outlet mall!) The Harry Leu Gardens you mentioned looks worthwhile visiting!

      I did manage to visit the Naples Botanical Gardens several summers ago and also profiled the visit as a blog post.

      Thanks, Paul

  5. Hi Beth,

    here's the link to my Universal Studio post:

    Thanks again for posting your entry. I laughed when I saw the snapdragons, they're still there!